EPL's five biggest question marks
There's nothing like the start of a new season to fuel hope and optimism where there was despair and recrimination only a month ago. In London, Manchester and Liverpool, you can still smell the stench from the wreckage that was England's World Cup run. Fans there spent a stressful summer wondering how so many of their clubs' heroes could look so utterly clueless when playing for their respective national teams and now need to be convinced that what happened in South Africa stayed in South Africa.
Here are five of the marked men who hold the keys to the fate of their teams -- and fans' psyches -- in the Prem:
Man U's hulking Hobbit-like star should be fresh and eager to get back to his old rampaging self after taking the summer off to oh wait. Rooney did go to the World Cup, although you can be forgiven for thinking he was absent from any meaningful action in the tournament. The only vivid memory I have of him came when he snarled at a cameraman after England's limp 0-0 draw with Algeria. It's fair to say that the player -- one some hailed as "the white Pele" in a dominant 2009-10 season for United in which he scored 34 goals in all competitions -- never truly showed up in South Africa.
Was it the lingering aftereffects of the ankle injury he suffered in the Champions League quarterfinal first leg against Bayern Munich? Was he homesick for Coleen and his newborn son? Was he just burned out? All three might have played a part in his summer horribilis, but I suspect that what really demolished him was the wrecking ball of a nation's expectations, hovering above him every time he touched the ball. That and, of course, the fact that his supporting cast was god-awful.
United fans will expect just as much of Master Wayne this season, but at least he'll be playing in the safe haven of Old Trafford. There, he'll have the adoring faithful cheering him on and the equally protective Sir Alex deflecting any criticism of his prodigal son -- as long as Rooney doesn't get caught smoking and urinating in the street again.
So can the best English player of his generation rediscover his mojo and terrorize the Prem like no one since C-Ron? If last Saturday's Charity Shield performance is any indication, Rooney appears hell-bent on vindicating himself as quickly as possible. In 45 minutes against Chelsea, he did more good things -- witness his no-look cross to Valencia to open the scoring -- than he did against the U.S., Slovenia, Algeria and Germany combined. And the scheduling gods have kindly smiled upon him, offering up a potential Monday night prime-time feast in the form of those newly promoted sacrificial lambs, Newcastle United. Whether Wazza bags a goal or two will be more dependent on the likes of Paul Scholes being able to pick him out from 30 yards than on his meditative state of mind. But one thing is certain: Everyone will be watching.
For more from David Hirshey, check out his columns on all things soccer.
• The All-EPL Team, 2011-12
• Saying goodbye to Chinaglia
• Time to dethrone King Kenny Dalglish?
• In praise of Fulham
• The comeback artists
• Call it a comeback
• Death by Manchester
• The battle for third
• Spurs' title credentials
• EPL's best starting XI
• City handed first EPL loss
• Chelsea pushed to brink
• Fragile egos crossing
• City and United
• Is Newcastle for real?
• The bad-behavior derby
Unlike with Rooney, there is actual documentation of Green's participation in South Africa -- a slo-mo money shot of his epic gaffe against the U.S. Then the film goes dark, as did England's World Cup campaign.
Although it would be unfair to blame England's debacle on the greasy-fingered goalkeeper, it didn't stop the British tabloids from mercilessly lampooning him. In fact, it's something of a miracle that the West Ham keeper is back at Upton Park rather than in a home for criminally abused World Cup scapegoats. The good news for Green is that it takes more than one catastrophic mistake to sink a 38-game EPL season single-handedly.
The bad news is that goalkeeping is the ultimate confidence game, and those shot-stoppers blessed with a mad glint in their eye and a short memory tend to have the longest shelf life.
Can Green ignore the mocking "Hand of Clod" barbs that are sure to greet him at away games? His teammates are already preparing him for the worst, taunting Green during training to toughen him up. But training is one thing. How will Green handle the terrified looks of his own defenders the first time he bobbles the ball? Does he have the mental toughness to rebuild his career? And finally, what's the over/under on how long it takes an Aston Villa player to launch a long-range daisy cutter against him on Saturday?
Brace yourself, Greeno -- it's going to be target practice.
How sweet it is to be a Spanish soccer player these days, especially if you were part of the squad that flamencoed its way to a Euro/World Cup double. In Torres and Fabregas, Liverpool and Arsenal, respectively, boast two key members of La Furia Roja. And yet, if you remove Fabregas' layoff to set up Andres Iniesta's extra-time goal against the Netherlands in the final, you would struggle to come up with another highlight between the two.
If there's one thing Arsenal fans can agree on, it's that the team's chances of lifting a trophy -- any trophy, even the Carling Cup -- depend on a happy and fit Fabregas. And like a certain basketball savior who was pursued by a posse of ardent suitors before declaring his vows to South Beach, Fabregas teased out his decision regarding whether to take his talents to Barca way longer than was necessary.
Did Fabregas orchestrate the whole tiresome saga like LeBron did? No, but I think he was a little bit too coquettish with Barcelona, even allowing his World Cup-winning teammates to "jokingly" force a Barca jersey on him during a celebration in Madrid. So I suspect that it'll take a while -- or, maybe, just one jaw-dropping goal -- for him to fully redeem himself and remind the Arsenal faithful that, right now, Fabregas is still the captain and heartbeat of the Gunners.
By contrast, Liverpool didn't have to plead all that much to persuade Torres to give the beleaguered club one more chance. For one thing, after his underwhelming performance in the World Cup, in which he clearly wasn't fully fit, many of the teams wooing him had second thoughts about ponying up gazillions for his services. For another, new manager Roy Hodgson convinced his star striker that, together, they could restore pride and luster to a faded Liverpool.
As it happens, Liverpool plays Arsenal on Sunday in the season's first "Game of the Century That Will Go A Long Way Toward Determining Third Place In The Title Race," and both Fabregas and Torres will be under intense scrutiny. Look for them to do a lot of badge kissing at Anfield.
It's one thing to wave your checkbook at every top player in the world, but it's another to shape them into a cohesive team. Just ask the New York Yankees, circa 2001-08. Right now, it seems you can't click on a soccer website without reading about how the Man City manager thinks that [fill in blank of player here] will be a good fit for the team he's hoping to field out of the 376 players he has at his disposal.
It's easier to identify the players who are not on Mancini's shopping list -- he apparently has given up on Torres, Fabregas, Edin Dzeko, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Lady Gaga, at least for now -- than those he's still throwing money at. So far, he has managed to persuade Jerome Boateng, David Silva, Aleksandar Kolarov and Yaya Toure to rock up at the Eastlands without any prospect of Champions League soccer or, for that matter, any guarantee of whether they will play regularly, let alone start.
And don't forget that Man City tried to buy the title last season, too; previous manager Mark Hughes attracted the likes of Emmanuel Adebayor, Gareth Barry, Roque Santa Cruz, Carlos Tevez, Kolo Toure, and Joleon Lescott. Then there's Robinho, who was last seen tied up somewhere in the bowels of Eastlands Stadium waiting for someone to meet City's ransom demands. Hughes paid the price, unfairly in his estimation, of being unable to juggle all those egos.
Mancini's "Noah's Ark" approach to transfers -- he wants two "world-class" players at every position -- will make for some pretty competitive sessions on the training ground, but it seems to be lost on the Italian that the games remain 90 minutes long, and you're still only allowed to play 11 players at the same time.
Reality will set in for Mancini this coming Saturday when Man City travels to White Hart Lane to face Tottenham, the team that edged City last season for fourth place and that precious final spot in the Champions League. Anytime he wants to know how his strategy of spending like a drunken WAG on vacation is working out, Mancini only has to look down the bench and see how many of his high-priced divas are smiling.
David Hirshey has been covering soccer for more than 30 years and has written about the sport for The New York Times, Time, ESPN The Magazine and Deadspin. He is the co-author of "The ESPN World Cup Companion" and played himself (almost convincingly) in the acclaimed soccer documentary "Once in a Lifetime."